Leiden, a.d. VI Ian. MMDCCLXIX A.U.C.,
Four days ago the Telegraph published an article in which several European populist parties are accused of being supported by the Kremlin. The
organiczars organizers of the Dutch referendum on the association treaty with Ukraine are among the accused (more on this topic). Accidentally, two weeks ago I wrote this draft:
“For some reason it is increasingly fashionable to be so anti-EU, that you become pro-Putin. Basically, in order to show how rotten the EU is, some argue that Russia’s behaviour in Georgia and Ukraine can be completely explained by the EU’s and NATO’s strategy (easily lumping those together) towards those two countries and Russia. Amongst them UKIP’s Farage, Front National’s Le Pen, EU-critic Baudet, right-wing populist blog GeenStijl, and the Dutch Party for Freedom. Especially in the Netherlands with the upcoming referendum on the EU association treaty with Ukraine, the discussion between how ghastly the EU is, is often coupled with how the crisis in Ukraine is the EU’s fault. Often this discussion is of an appalling level, seeing that different actors and organizations get mixed up in the narrative that an undemocratic elite has implemented policies which harmed Russia, leading to the war in Ukraine, and moreover, dragging hard-working tax paying citizens into a war they do not want. The ultimate conclusion to this narrative is that citizens should be anti-EU and anti-establishment. The organizers of the referendum on the EU association treaty even have admitted they do not really care about Ukraine at all: the treaty is about democracy in the EU. I think it is time that people stop siding with Putin to show how dreadful the EU is.
While I understand the frustration with the EU, I myself think it needs major reforms, I am absolutely baffled that those who pretend to fight for freedom and accountable government associate themselves with an autocrat like Putin. To be sure, Russia is a sovereign nation, and this post is not meant to criticize Putin’s internal policies. That is, I do not think we should implement sanctions or anti-Russian policy to influence Russia’s domestic politics. However, NATO and the EU should defend their interests vis-à-vis Russia, and it is an absolute joke that those nationalist groups which are all about Western interests opportunistically side with Putin if it comes in handy to criticize the EU.
Firstly, even if the EU and NATO made mistakes, there is no reason to defend Putin’s policies only in order to critique the EU and NATO. The mistakes the EU and NATO made did not ’cause’ Russia’s policies in any physical sense. Putin has made decisions based on the EU’s and NATO’s behaviour, so the moral burden of those actions is on him. Even if Western policies made Russia’s actual foreign policy more likely, it was by no means obvious that killing innocent people and invading other countries was the only option available to Russia. Had Russia been a democratic country, these issues would probably never have been problematic. Why should a democratic Russia be scared of the West? As if Europe has the will to start a major war with its huge neighbour. Europe’s armies did not even have the munition to defeat Qadaffi… So, the security threat posed by the West to Russia is minimal, nobody wants a war with Russia, Russia could have been a democratic NATO ally by now, had Putin not chosen to create a brutal autocracy. After all, incorporating Germany into the Western community took 10 years after World War II, and together with accepting Japan, it has been one of the USA’s most fruitful American foreign policies.
Moreover, can we blame Russia’s neighbours for wanting to associate themselves with the democratic and prosperous West, rather than with a neighbour which has oppressed them during the previous century? Russia does not have the right, or the moral high ground, to invade other countries simply because its neighbours seek NATO protection and EU prosperity. Those countries are sovereign nations as well, and legally and morally they have the right to associate themselves with the EU and NATO. And many clearly wanted to, seeing their long and troubled history with their Russian neighbour. Ukraine is in fact a clear outlier in this sense, as it has no plans to join NATO. Moreover, there is no chance of it joining the EU any time soon. But it does want, and does have the right, to sign an association treaty with the EU. In spite of all the critique of the EU, by and large the EU has proven its worth over and over again. It has brought free trade and freedom of movement in Europe, it has brought peace and stability. It makes sense that former-communist countries want to join the EU. So, Russia’s intimidation of its neighbours, think also of the crippling cyber attack on Estonia in 2007 as a response to the removal of a statue, is outrageous and disproportional, and not ’caused’ by Western policy, even if it has been in response to Western policy.
Secondly, if the critique of the EU is that it is undemocratic, I admit it is far from perfect on this score, how in the world does it make sense to side with Putin? Putin scores far worse on the democracy scale than the EU does. Even if EU leaders act somewhat heavy handed at times, they always do so with a mandate from a lot of European heads of government and the European Parliament. There are plenty of issues with that system, but if you are pro-democracy, supporting Putin to critique the EU is both pathetic and opportunistic. If the EU’s democracy is like a day with some clouds, Russia is as dark as the nights in which journalists never return home. So why is GeenPeil pushing an agenda which uses the completely arbitrary issue of the Ukraine association treaty, often using blatant lies, to show that the EU is undemocratic? Because it pursues certain policies which it desperately tries to depict as the prelude to World War III, while at the same time claiming that the referendum is ‘just about democracy.’ It is a complete farce.
Thirdly, there is a tendency to blame the EU, that is the European Commission, for the actions of other actors. Much of Western foreign policy had nothing to do with the EU. NATO’s expansion to Eastern Europe is not the EU’s fault, neither is failed NATO policy towards Georgia in 2008. Nevertheless, NATO’s actions require unanimity, so we cannot blame it for being undemocratic either. The tendency to lump everything together, shout that the West is Russophobic, and therefore the EU is just EVIL, is often a complete distortion of the truth.
So, by all means address the democratic deficit of the EU. It is very often true that EU leaders show disrespect to the European electorate. Moreover, you can be against the EU, because you believe it is beyond salvation, I vehemently disagree, but it is a fair position to take. But why, for crying out loud, support a dictator who has invaded two sovereign countries that wanted to associate themselves with the West, making up blatant lies and lumping together all sorts of actors and organizations, only to criticize the EU? Let’s make the discussion about the EU a fair one, because the EU is failing in so many respects, that we absolutely need a discussion about the EU, how to improve it, or how to replace it with another pan-European organization/free trade zone (not my preference, but again, it is a fair opinion).
Moreover, there are plenty of things going on in Ukraine which I would not want to happen in the Netherlands. I think many of the allegations against Kiev are truthful. While not going as far as believing Russia’s propaganda, the Ukrainian government probably is extremely corrupt, the country has a far right problem, the country is unstable, its collapsing economy is tiny compared to Russia’s. These are fair arguments against the association treaty, although I think they are all reasons to engage with Ukraine, help it become stable. While Ukraine is not ready to join the EU, and for geopolitical reasons it probably should never join, it is an illusion that we can pretend the country is not collapsing. Ignoring that only invites more trouble. Meanwhile, in another geopolitical context, cooperation has even gotten Serbia on the road to EU membership. A country that used to be an autocracy, and used to be bogged down in a perennial fight with its neighbour Croatia, managed to democratize and set aside its many difference with its neighbour in return for the promise of prosperity and peace. The EU did that, hopefully it can do the same for Ukraine. But that is the discussion we should have about Ukraine, can the EU do this again in this wildly different (geopolitical) context? You have every right to disagree with me, and oppose the treaty with Ukraine. Please, do not spoil that exceedingly important discussion with nonsense about how Putin is the victim in this situation.”
So, I am not surprised the CIA is looking into whether Putin supports the anti-EU parties. However, I would also be surprised if they do indeed receive support from Putin. I think they are willing to say virtually anything to make this referendum hurt the EU, if copying Russian propaganda helps, they copy Russian propaganda. Having said that, what if it turns out that indeed the organizers of the referendum receive support from Putin? Even if Putin supports them, it is not automatically true that therefore the association treaty with Ukraine is a brilliant idea. It should make us more cautious to accept the arguments coming from that side of the aisle. Moreover, the concerns that people have about the EU are still real, and to a large extent justified. Even if Putin supports the anti-EU parties, we still have plenty of reasons to be critical of the EU. So while we should keep in mind that Putin tries to divide Europe, and might be doing this through anti-EU parties, we still need to be critical of the EU and make the EU more democratic.
Bottom Line: Siding with Putin in support of democracy is ridiculous. Nevertheless, even if Russia supports anti-EU parties, we should still be critical (and not sceptical in my view) of the EU.